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A world safe from Facebook skullduggery

By Philip J. Cunningham | China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-24 10:11
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Facebook data scandal. [Photo/VCG]

In retrospect, China did the right thing by saying "no, thank you" to Facebook and closing the door on it.

When gregarious internet evangelists bearing gifts come knocking at your door, it is probably best not to take their wares or let them in-give'em inch they take a mile-especially if national sovereignty is at stake. Saying no to the latest in foreign invasive technology, as sensible as it seems now, hurt China's image several years back when the US' internet darlings could do no wrong.

When Beijing blocked Facebook and Google, there was a great media hue and cry about "freedom", and barriers to trade, but almost no talk about how the Silicon Valley giants not only work hand in glove with the US' Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, but also serve as formidable intelligence agencies in their own right. Unlike their Beltway counterparts, the Bay Area operations spy on millions and rake in obscene profits with little or no congressional oversight.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a perfect storm of politics, dirty tricks and data abuse; the way they took charge of Donald Trump's digital campaign is and shall remain a potent reminder of what goes wrong when the "friends" and "likes" of Facebook accounts are used to divide, confuse and disenchant large portions of the electorate.

After years of hemming and hawing and foot-dragging on key question of keeping private data private, the latest flurry of half-apologies and last-minute public relations push does nothing to fix the core problem. The core business model of Facebook is collecting, exploiting and selling data, mainly to advertisers but nefarious political operators such as Cambridge Analytica are clients, too. Facebook's legal team keeps it one step ahead of the law, it has long ignored complaints about privacy violation, and it lacks adequate checks and balances to correct itself.

Violation of privacy is key to Facebook's rise and imminent fall. It's what happens when a greedy company can't get enough and wants more and more and more, without concern for the privacy of others, without thinking through the consequences. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has gone to great lengths to curry favor with Beijing authorities, all to no avail. Chinese analysts rightly surmised that Facebook was a "Trojan Horse" that they could do without, despite every outward appearance of being a gift.

As US first lady, Hillary Clinton trumpeted the expansion of the internet in China. Working as a freelance reporter during President Bill Clinton's Beijing visit in 1998, the bubbly enthusiasm for all things Silicon Valley was palpable within the US delegation and Hillary Clinton was at the center of it, courting young Chinese web users with memes of "freedom".

As US secretary of state, she continued to pitch pretty words about free expression to promote the case for Facebook, ignorant or unconcerned about the fact that Facebook was making the world a less safe place. And as a candidate for president, Hilary Clinton was at times ruthless, deflecting fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders as her campaign availed itself of dodgily-sourced information, because in politics, information is power. Dirty data collected online, offline and even in hotel bedrooms by retired spies and sleuths helped produce the infamous Steele dossier.

Call it blowback, call it karma, but the United States' leading internet evangelista got bit by the beast she was feeding during the home stretch of her run for president in 2016. She lost a race she had every reason to think she would win, a close race against what many said was a clownish opponent. The electoral process was tarnished by the very technology she trumpeted.

Facebook advertisement interference and Facebook data abuse, some of it tentatively linked to Russia, is at the heart of the scandal. Since Hillary Clinton's spectacularly unexpected defeat, she has pointed fingers every which way, missing exhibit number one: Facebook. And though its stock has dropped precipitously, Facebook is still at large, still evading responsibility while claiming to be responsible, still gobbling up unexploited markets, still maximizing and monetizing its access to the world's secrets.

Britain's Channel 4 exposé on Cambridge Analytica chillingly suggests that the marshalling and manipulation of Facebook data can swing an election even in the most mature democracies. If so, what chance do struggling democracies stand in withstanding information abuse and fake news from Facebook and the other internet giants?

Facebook is yet to explain how the private preferences, likes, dislikes, friends and friends of friends and information profiles of some 50 million Facebook users became fodder for political skullduggery. Cambridge Analytica, co-founded by the maverick, and sometimes gleefully malicious election adviser Steve Bannon, was funded by right-wing computer engineer Robert Mercer, both Americans. But most of the work and day-to-day operations, including, apparently, the outsourcing of skullduggery, were based in Britain and staffed by non-Americans, which raises the question of foreign interference. Manipulated data and dirty tricks also tilted one of the most consequential polls in European history, the Brexit vote, heralding Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

There's an irony in the US government crying foul to foreign meddling in US elections when the US government has a history of meddling second to none. But the vulnerability of free and open societies to cash-driven influence-peddling has hit close to home. It raises the question of the role that a billionaire such as Mercer can play in throwing the outcome of a national election or plebiscite. If the US and Britain, two exemplars of modern democracy, can so quickly lose their way under the triple threat of targeted ads, divisive messaging and dirty tricks, what hope does anyone else have to withstand a similar onslaught?

Recent revelations will almost certainly lead to more shockers, but the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting case is enough to validate the view of those who didn't want the likes of Facebook and Google colonizing and exploiting the information ecology of China. China can watch Facebook explode and collapse with a certain schadenfreude, but it's nothing to be smug about since China also has to wrestle with the issue of data security while taming the influence of homegrown internet giants.

Internally, the US and China face similar challenges on how best to manage a vast information ecosystem, but for the moment at least, China can watch the Facebook smack-down with "I told you so".

The author is a media researcher covering Asia politics.

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